Monday, August 1, 2016

A Homespun Year...Old fashioned Smocking for Beginners...

Back in January, when I declared 2016 to be my Homespun Year at A Tray of Bliss, I asked you to imagine what new skills you could adopt that could generate gifts, or even a part time income, and perhaps save money too. Lets face it. The learning of some new skills requires huge investments of money up front, so I was determined that you and I not to fall into that trap. I urged you to contemplate being in January 2017, and being able to look back upon the previous year with satisfaction and pride, at having stretched yourself and your skills to embrace something new and exciting.
So. How are you going with that? I hope you've truly found some fresh and absorbing skills, and accomplished a few wonderful and treasured projects!
Can I share my progress?
To date, there have been a few new skills tried, and a few new recipes and ideas aired, and strangely, many of these were somewhat unplanned, and sort of found me, rather than me searching for them!
I've made Cumquat Marmalade, Wool Wash, Dreamcatchers, Crepe Paper Roses, Lace Rosettes, Satin and Georgette Rosettes, Shortcrust Pastry Roses, a Frozen themed birthday cake, a Rainbow batter birthday cake, and Petit Fours. I've had enormous fun with Fibre Collage for costumes, made Elvish Tiaras, embellished pillow cases, made rice filled Book Weights, hand coloured my own Sugar Glitter, and made Scented Candles in vintage sugar bowls. There have been a few other little projects that weren't the successes I'd hoped for, but overall, I think that's good progress!

The newest skill I'd like to share with you, is Smocking, and I hope you'll become as addicted to this beautiful Heirloom skill as I'm going to be!

Those of us of a 'certain vintage' may recall having nightgowns with smocking on them, and certainly even now, smocking adorns upmarket baby and childrens wear of the kind favoured by celebrities and Royals. Even young Prince George has worn smocked outfits.

Smocking is a method of pleating and embellishing that has adorned clothing since the Middle Ages and it remains highly sought after, and increasingly, very expensive, for the simple reason that it's time consuming. Yet another Heirloom skill, that we too can master, and share proudly with our friends and loved ones!

I'd always shied away from it as it seemed so complicated, but finally, with some gingham in hand from my fabric stash, I gave it a try, and I'm thrilled with the results.

This method is called Honeycomb smocking, due to it's resemblance to honeycomb in a bees hive. It's less complex than the methods that require tiny pleats and lavish embellishment, like young Prince Georges, but no less pretty for it.

The gingham checks make a neat and easy guide for your smocking, and whilst my checks are smallish, you can use a large check, or any other fabric that has a grid pattern that is repeating. In traditional smocking, a series of dot points is transferred to your fabric either by hand, or more recently, by using transfer paper with pre-marked dot grids on them. Your dots are used as markers for your stitching, thus ensuring a straight and even smocked effect. If your dots are crooked, so too, will your smocking be out of alignment.

This is where the gingham does all the hard work for you as you already have a neat little grid with which to work.

My project is relatively small, and I recommend that you start small too, if only to get the hang of things before embarking on a more ambitious project. I decided that my first smocking project would be a pocket for an apron for my granddaughter.

I cut a generous length from my gingham, multiplying the desired finished width of my pocket by 2.5, to get my width of fabric with which to work. The smocking gathers the fabric as you go, so you need a generous amount to start with. Mine was going to be a large-ish pocket to be placed in the middle of the apron. I multiplied the desired finished width of 18cms (7 inches) by 2.5, to arrive at a width of fabric to be cut, of 45cms (17.5 inches). I allowed a depth of 40cms (16 inches) to give me a bit of length to play with in case I made a boo-boo! Make sure you use the selvedge edge (the finished side edge of the fabric that doesn't fray) as your width, and the guide for your stitching, or your finished smocking will be out of shape. If you don't know what I mean, pull on your fabric vertically, horizontally and diagonally, as if to stretch it. One way will have a little more give than the other. The selvedge edge has less 'give' and will be more stable for your smocking. For a clearer explanation of 'weft and warp' and 'selvedge', see here.

I looked at many tutorials before I found one that made sense to me here. Even then, I had to actually start stitching before some of the instructions were clear.

So, here's my interpretation.

If you are right handed, start at the right hand side of your fabric. If you are left handed, start at the left. Many tutorials mentioned this and I think it's because it's easier to see where you're going, than it is to be looking at where you've! When you get started, you'll see what I mean.

Now I decided to work with the darkest square on my gingham as my reference point. I also chose to work from top right hand point of that square, to the top right hand point of the next dark square along. Remember, I'm right handed, so I'm working from right to left, not left to right as you would with handwriting. You need to choose a point and remain consistent with that throughout, to ensure your smocking is nice and straight and even.

Many tutorials said to use embroidery floss, but as I had some sewing thread in a deeper teal colour that I thought would be a nice accent on the aqua blue check, I used that, doubled so I had two strands to work with. You can use contrasting colours too of course, which gives an entirely different effect.

So remembering that all we are really doing is creating a series of offset pleats, you start at a point near the top right hand corner of your fabric, and in the top right hand corner of the colour of square you're using as your guide. Knot the end of your thread, and bring the needle from back to front at that corner of the square, and make a tiny backstitch to secure the thread. Remember if you're left handed, you're starting at the left, and using the left hand corners of the squares as your guide.

Here you can see that I'm stitching together the top right hand corner of one dark square, to the top right hand corner of the next. These two lines of stitching, are actually one row of smocking, and you'll see how in a minute.
You can see the joined squares more clearly here below...

First of all, you bring your needle from back to front on the top right hand corner of the square at which you want to start your smocking. Make a little backstitch to secure it.
With your needle brought from back to front, you now take up a tiny, incremental piece of your square (maybe a third of that square), and take your needle across to the top right hand corner of the next corresponding dark square, and do the same, seen here below.

You've now formed two tiny little pleats.
Gently pull your thread to make the two little pleats come together to form your smocked stitch...

...then secure it with a second backstitch as seen below..

Drop down to the top right hand corner of the next dark square, immediately beneath the second square you've just connected with your pleat and stitch.

You've just created the first two stitches of your row of smocking. You'll continue to do this, offsetting each upper and lower stitch, forming the diamond (honeycomb pattern) of your smocking.  Note that I had already finished my first row of smocking before I took these photos, so I'm actually working my second row of smocking here. I apologise if that's confusing.

Time to create your next two stitches, and begin forming that honeycomb look. Put your needle as close to but not actually in, the hole from where it's currently exiting, so that the needle is now at the back of your work. Take the needle back up to the top right hand corner of the darkest square above the square you've just pleated, and bring the needle back to the front at that corner. Again, this will be clearer when you actually have the work in front of you. See, like this, here below...

Pull the thread through gently, but do not tighten it. That will form a gather where one is not needed. Let the thread lay flat on the back of your work like a large tacking stitch. If you look closely at the photograph below, you'll see my 'tacking stitch', two rows of checks above my thumb at the bottom of the photo....nice and flat and not drawn tight.

Back to where we were, and you're bringing your needle back to the front of your work, in the top right hand corner of the darkest square, immediately above the left hand square you've just worked on....see here below...

This means your work will now be offset, or diagonally opposed to your previous stitch. Again, this makes more sense when you're actually stitching.
Make another pair of tiny pleats. Take up a third of your square with the needle, and...

...take your needle across to the next top right hand corner of the darkest square, and do the same, as you did when forming your first pair of pleats..

...gently pull the pleats together firmly, and secure with another backstitch.

Take your needle to the back of the work near the hole you've just exited, and take it down to the corresponding top right hand corner of the darkest square immediately below the one you've just been working on. This should be one dark square over from your previous bottom stitch. You can already see that you're forming your diamond, or honeycomb pattern as you can see here below, where I had completed a few more stitches, going up and down, with my squares as the guide...

...make another pleat, secure, then return the needle to the back of your work, and go up to the square above, and so on....

Keep going till you reach the opposite side of your piece of fabric, ensuring you leave a bit for seam allowance. If you would like another row of smocking (remembering that each pair of diagonally opposed rows of stitching and pleating, forms one row of smocking), you must return to the right hand side of your work (or left for left-handed people), and start over. You cannot work back and forth as the smocking will twist, or so I've! That makes sense though, as smocking existed to allow a bit of 'give' before elastic was invented!

Isn't it pretty?

Honestly, I found it quite difficult to understand the instructions in the link I provided, and that one was the clearest. And I don't pretend mine are any clearer, as I am a novice. But sometimes things written by a novice, make more sense to another novice. As mentioned, I actually found that once I had the fabric and the needle and thread in front of me, and I was sewing, I got the hang of it pretty quickly. I hope you find that's the case too. Between my hokey instructions, and the ones in the link that talks about dots, you'll find that it's not that hard at all.

I'm now embroidering below this to complete my pocket for my Granddaughters apron. I'll share that when it's done.

What do you think? Will you try your hand at smocking?


  1. That certainly is an old handicraft, Mimi. I probably did it when I was growing up as we worked on samplers at school from memory. It is time consuming but well worth the result.

    1. I know Chel. An almost forgotten one, I think! I thought it might be worth resurrecting, and really, this method is not as time consuming as you imagine. Love, Mimi xxx

  2. I meant to say well worth the effort not well worth the result. LOL!

  3. Smocking is something I've never tried, but it is on my To Do list. I'm sure I would have had smocked gowns as a baby. I love the effect it creates, especially on gingham.

    1. Hi Pam...You're so clever, I can't believe you haven't beaten me to this skill! This method is surprisingly easy. Give it a try and let me know how you go. Love, Mimi xxx

  4. Morning Mimi,
    How are ya sweetie???
    Oh, I love smocking, I think it is just so beautiful and what you are doing looks awesome on that blue are so good at
    all that....which is so neat........cause so many of these types of things
    are just becoming lost tatting for instance. I have hand tatted baby shoes that my great grandmother made, and they are so beautiful.
    I used to crochet but haven't done it in a long time........I was sort
    of self taught too, and also macrame'.....that's was years ago too. lol
    and did try my hand at knitting but never really made anything with it.
    Keep up the good work.....
    Have a sweet and lovely week my friend,
    LOve and Blessings,

    1. Hi Nellie my lovely. I'm well, how are you going? I'm glad you like the smocking. I think we're both of the vintage where it was quite the thing on nightgowns and baby items, yes? You make so much that's lovely that perhaps you don't need to knit or crochet ;-) Mimi xxx

  5. I made a suit very similar to the one prince George is wearing. It was from the book Traditional nursery patterns by Judith Hopkins. She was a nanny.

    1. Judith, bravo to that! That is very intricate work, and I'm nowhere near that! I bet yours was beautiful. Mimi xxx

  6. Great tutorial, thanks for sharing. I'm going to save this to use later:)


    1. Thanks Christina! I hope you find it useful! Mimi xxx

  7. Mimi, you come up with the most lovely things to try and you master them beautifully. I can't wait to see the finished aprons the littlies will love them I'm sure. Just got the computer back from it's "doctor" so off to catch up on what I've missed in the last few weeks.
    Cheers, Bevo xx

    1. Thanks Bevo. I've just gifted the aprons, forgetting to photograph them, but I'll be making them again, so stay tuned! Mimi xxx

  8. I love smocking and it always looks lovely on gingham. My girls wore the prettiest smocked dresses when they were little, alas I didn't create them. Your pretty pocket will look lovely on your granddaughter's apron. Thank you for the step by step instructions and photos, Mimi.

    1. Dear Kim, I'm so glad to see you, and apologise that it's taken me so long to respond. Yes I recall smocked dresses being quite the thing. Alas I had boys and missed that bit of fun, until my daughter was born. Smocking was not considered on trend for little girls by then, so boat missed again! Now the granddaughters....! Mimi xxx

  9. I have pinned this to try later; I'm not always coordinated but I'll give it a try. Thanks for the simple explanation.

    1. Dear Carol, it's a thing where once you start, it makes complete sense. Just start. You won't regret it! Mimi xxx

  10. I took a sewing class while I was in high school so I could sew dresses for my children - I had three boys. I was taught to make long, long, long basting stitches across the fabric and then pull together from each side. Once I got the folds that I wanted, sew the pleats down. Haven't done it in almost 48 years but if I ever get a granddaughter, I will try it again.

    1. Yes, I know the feeling of having boys and nobody to sew pretty things for! It's such a lovely skill though, and one worth preserving I think! Mimi xxx

  11. I think I remember learning this at school but had quite forgotten, thank you for a great tutorial #TheRealCraftyLinkParty

    1. Yes, we learn a lot of little pretty things in fourth grade sewing class, and them promptly forget them all, I think! Mimi xxx

  12. Sweet friend, I so adore smocking and yours is stunning! Thank you for the excellent tutorial and when I have some free time I hope to try it :)

    Wishing you a joyous week. Love and hugs to you!

    1. Dear Stephanie, you always say the sweetest things. Thankyou for visiting me! Mimi xxx

  13. You did lovely work, thank you so much for sharing this tutorial at The Really Crafty Link Party this week. Pinned!

  14. Hi Mimi
    When I am done smocking on gingham do I lightly press the back side to make crisp pleats? I very much appreciate your time and knowledge showing beginners how to smock. Thank You, Kathy

    1. Hi Kathy. Thanks for your question. I'm not quite sure what you mean. I don't press my smocking at all. It just settles into place and becomes more 'crisp' with wear. I hope this is helpful. Mimi xxx


I love hearing from you! I always respond to comments, so don't be shy! Mimi xxx